Of the original musicals that bow on Broadway, most spring from the well of source material: books, plays, movies. Still, there is another font of inspiration; whether printed in the newspaper or aired on Saturday morning television, cartoons have inspired multiple theatrical endeavors. Here, we examine nine musicals adapted from cartoon shows and comic strips:
1. The Addams Family
This creepy and macabre-obsessed family were first introduced to America as a series of one-panel cartoons in The New Yorker, drawn by Charles Addams. The Addams family, including Gomez and Morticia, their children, Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester, and Grandma, Lurch, Thing, and Cousin Itt, became characters on a TV show in 1964 (which is when they were given those names; the characters in the cartoons were nameless). The franchise came back in the 1990s with a series of movies, including 1991’s The Addams Family and 1993 Addams Family Values.
A musical version of The Addams Family began development in 2007, when producers Stuart Oken and Roy Furman announced they had been granted rights by the Addams estate to bring the characters to the stage for the first time. Rather than use the plots of any of the previous dramatizations of The Addams Family, the musical adaptation was taken entirely from Addams’ original cartoons. The work ultimately premiered on Broadway in April 2010, running through December 2011.
Since its Broadway run, the show has enjoyed considerable success in regional markets. The Addams Family was the most produced show at high schools in the U.S. during the 2018–2019 school year.
Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury started in 1970. It began following the lives of a group of college students attending the fictional Walden College, though it ultimately became known for its political and social commentary. The strip was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1975, the first daily comic strip to be given that honor.
The characters in the strip had remained perpetually of college age, but in January 1983, Trudeau announced he would take a nearly two-year hiatus from the strip to bring his characters to Broadway. And notably, the musical Doonesbury marked college graduation for his characters. Trudeau set to work writing the book and lyrics, while Elizabeth Swados provided the music. Doonesbury opened on Broadway November 1983 with a cast that included Mark Linn-Baker (You Can’t Take It With You), Gary Beach (The Producers), Lauren Tom (A Chorus Line), and Kate Burton (Present Laughter). The show received mixed notices and closed after 104 performances, but a cast recording preserved the score.
Doonesbury the musical remains important in the history of the Doonesbury comic strip; following the musical adaptation, Trudeau began illustrating his characters aging in near real-time. The Broadway musical was the turning point.
3. It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman!
Broadway’s first superhero musical was It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman!, which opened on Broadway in 1966. Superman—or Clark Kent—first took flight in the pages of a comic book in 1933. He made the jump to television with 1952’s Adventures of Superman, which became extremely popular and ran through 1958. By the time producers decided to adapt the character for a Broadway musical in 1966, Superman had become quite the hot property.
But the musical adaptation of the Superman franchise took quite a different spin on the story of Clark Kent. It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman!, with a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie) and a book by David Newman and Robert Benton—who would also go on to co-write the screenplays to Superman and Superman II in 1978 and 1980, respectively—found a good deal of campy comedy in the Superman story. The musical dispensed with many well-known Superman characters—most notably Lex Luthor—in favor of new characters created for Broadway. In fact, of the characters in It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, fans would only recognize Clark Kent/Superman, his love interest Lois Lane, and his boss Perry White.
Despite positive reviews, the original production had a brief run of 129 performances. A drastically shortened version of the show was presented on TV in 1975, starring Lesley Ann Warren as Lois Lane. The show was revised again in 2010, premiering at Dallas Theater Center with a new book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who re-introduced elements from the original comic. Ultimately, the show’s biggest success has been the song “You’ve Got Possibilities,” originally sung by Linda Lavin, which broke out and became a standalone hit.
4. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip has been adapted into almost every medium, spawning television movies, major motion pictures, albums, and theatre. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the first theatrical Peanuts adaptation, was born as a group of songs written by Clark Gesner. The songs were recorded as a concept album in 1966, and after encouragement from producer Arthur Whitelaw, Gesner decided to adapt the songs into a musical.
“John Gordon” is credited with the book to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, though Gordon is actually a pseudonym for Gesner and the original cast and creative team, who put the script together from Schulz’s comics. The entire musical unfolds as a series of vignettes, some of which are musical numbers. The show premiered Off-Broadway in 1967, with Bob Balaban and Gary Burghoff in the cast. The Off-Broadway production ran for 1,597 performances—quite the success.
Though its initial 1971 Broadway run was short-lived (only 32 regular performances), the 1999 revival was well-received. That production earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best Revival of a Musical and another for Best Direction of a Musical for Michael Mayer, plus two wins. Kristin Chenoweth took home a Tony for her role as Sally Brown and Roger Bart took home a Tony for his role as Snoopy.
Since its premiere, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown has also enjoyed several national tours and regional productions. The musical even made the jump back to animation in 1971, when it was adapted into an animated television special.
Remember the producer who thought Gesner’s ...Charlie Brown album should become a stage musical? Apparently Arthur Whitelaw really liked the idea of Charlie Brown on the stage, because he directed and co-wrote another Peanuts-based musical in 1975: Snoopy!!!. Considered a sequel to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the production features a score by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady (Minnie’s Boys and Goodtime Charlie) and a book by Warren Lockhart, Michael Grace, and Whitelaw. As you can guess from the title, this musical focuses more on Charlie Brown’s dog, Snoopy, and is slightly more linear in structure.
The work premiered at the Little Fox Theatre in San Francisco in 1975, running Off-Broadway in 1983. Like its predecessor, Snoopy!!! was adapted into an animated television special in 1988.
Charles Strouse returned to comic book source material with Annie, though this time with a different team: lyricist Martin Charnin and book writer Thomas Meehan. The show is based on a 1920s comic series titled Little Orphan Annie, following the adventures of a plucky red-headed orphan. When the team began writing a musical adaptation, they decided to write somewhat of a prequel to the original comic, telling the then-untold story of how Annie comes to live with the fabulously wealthy Oliver Warbucks.
The show premiered at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1976, opening on Broadway a few months later. Annie became one of the biggest hits of the ’80s, running for a total of 2,377 performances on Broadway. It was adapted into a feature film in 1982, a TV movie in 1999, a second feature film in 2014, and has been revived on Broadway twice. Regional and amateur theatres frequently produce the show and a tour is almost always on the road. The show’s main anthem, “Tomorrow,” has become one of the better known Broadway songs of the 20th Century.
Annie also has the dubious distinction of having not one, not two, but three sequels. The entire Annie writing team collaborated again on Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, which opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1989. The production was to be a pre-Broadway try-out, but the Broadway transfer was canceled after the production received negative reviews. The team had a second go with Annie Warbucks, which reused some of the plot elements and score of Annie 2. Annie Warbucks was again developed at Goodspeed Opera House and ultimately played Off-Broadway for 200 performances in 1993. A movie sequel, Annie: A Royal Adventure!, was released in 1995 with none of the original Annie writing team involved. This film did not feature any original songs, though “Tomorrow” is sung.
7. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark holds the reputation as one of Broadway’s more notorious musicals. The piece was first announced as “in development” in 2002, but years of delays ensued. From pre-production woes (including the sudden death of original producer Tony Adams) to extensive technical issues on Broadway (the preview period repeatedly extended and, ultimately, broke records at nearly seven months long), the Spider-Man musical spent a lot of time in the headlines throughout its life.
Spider-Man started out as a comic book series, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962. The series centers around Peter Parker, a young man who, after being bitten by a radioactive spider, finds himself with spider-like superpowers. Before long, he’s skulking through New York City fighting crime and saving the good guys. The character made the jump into various other mediums quickly after the comic premiered, an animated series in 1967 and the blockbuster film series.
The musical told a similar Spider-Man origin story to those found in the comics and movie adaptations. It also featured Spider-Man battling the Green Goblin, a villain from the franchise, but original director Julie Taymor notably added a new villain of her own creation as well, Arachne, based on the Greek myth.
Unfortunately, Spider-Man’s immense running costs and substantial backstage drama prevented the production from becoming a major hit, though it ran a healthy three years. Producers announced a Los Angeles engagement and an arena tour, but nothing has materialized as of yet.
8. Li’l Abner
Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, about a group of hillbillies that lived in a mountain village called Dogpatch, ran in newspapers from 1934–1977. Reports emerged in 1946 regarding interest in developing the comic for Broadway with Al Capp on board to write the book. This version of the show never came to be, and the property became associated with a string of writers, including Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Schwartz, and Lerner and Burton Lane, that never came to be.
Ultimately, Li’l Abner opened on Broadway in 1956 with a score by Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), and a book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank (the 1954 White Christmas film). The show was a bonafide hit, running for 693 performances. The original cast included Edie Adams, Stubby Kaye, Julie Newmar, and Charlotte Rae.
Li’l Abner was almost immediately adapted for the big screen—Paramount had backed the Broadway production. Most of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the movie version, which was released in 1959. Outside of an Encores! concert revival in 1998, the work hasn’t seen a major New York City production since the Broadway premiere.
9. SpongeBob SquarePants
SpongeBob features many of the characters from the popular cartoon, but the story is completely original. The musical tells the story of SpongeBob and his starfish best friend, Patrick, and their efforts to save their underwater city of Bikini Bottom from Armageddon, in the form of an underwater volcano.
Unlike the other musicals on this list, SpongeBob flaunts an extensive list of writers. Kyle Jarrow wrote the book, and the score reflects a compiliation of songs by pop and rock artists, including Sara Bareilles, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! at the Disco, They Might Be Giants, David Bowie, and more. Tina Landau co-conceived and directed the production with choreography by Christopher Gattelli.